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Nov 16, 2017
Sunland Park, Border Futures and the New Mexico Dream
Official city seal
Sunland Park, Border Futures and the New Mexico
By Kent Paterson/Correspondent
Nov. 13, 2017
SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Big themes shaping the U.S-Mexico border are in
the news- immigration, NAFTA, the border wall, and the so-called drug war. Largely
flying under the radar are the day-to-day concerns facing millions of borderlanders
from two nations in places like Sunland Park, New Mexico.
Where are the good-paying jobs? Is the community water
supply affordable and safe to drink? What about flood control, traffic, roads
and neighborhood security? Are the schools good? Will a pack of stray dogs maul
our playing children? Do local governments give a hoot about us?
Wrestling with seemingly local issues, last
week's session of the Sunland Park City Council provided a broader portrait of
a border society in transition and some of the early 21st century choices
communities must make in a context of tight-fisted state spending, federal
funding policies, capital investment priorities, real estate market forces, lifestyle
trends, and shifting regional and global environments.
Crammed into the small city council chambers and
spilling into the hallway, dozens of concerned local residents turned out for
the November 7 meeting to hear about and debate ambitious economic development
projects, flood mitigation, animal control, housing subdivisions and more.
Falling on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik
Revolution according to the Gregorian calendar, what proved to be a marathon
meeting did not culminate in the storming of the local Winter Palace. Nonetheless,
it was certainly one for the historic books in terms of public engagement,
impassioned commentaries, legal pot shots and running out the clock.
"I wouldn't want to live anywhere
else," Andres Peña told city councilors of achieving his dream of buying
his own home. "It's my own little tranquility out there."
Santa Teresa area resident and Sunland Park
property owner Orlando Cervantes assessed the progress of the New Mexico border
city of more than 16,500 people (U.S. Census estimate, 2016) since the
so-called Sunland Park Scandals of 2011-12.
"There have been some good things happening
but there are still things that need to be done," Cervantes said, adding
that hiring a new city manager, securing strong leadership and reviewing the controversial
Santa del Sol housing development are "paramount" needs.
In August, the Sunland Park City Council voted 4-1
to fire City Manager Bob Gallagher; his job is currently filled by Acting City
Manager Julian Ruybalid while the hiring process for a permanent city manager
Five of Sunland Park's city councilors were
present for last week’s session including Olga Nuñez, Carolina Renteria, Donald
McBride, Ken Giove and Francisco Jayme. Daniel de los Santos did not attend.
Mayor Javier Perea moderated the evening's packed
agenda, getting the ball rolling by having each of the city councilors present affirm
he or she didn’t have a conflict of interest with any item on the agenda.
Befitting a bilingual community, translation devices were available for
monolingual Spanish or English speakers.
Riverwalks, roads and recognitions
In a plan reminiscent of former Sunland Park
Mayor Ruben Nuñez's San Antonio Riverwalk-like development strategy, city
contractors Wilson and Company unveiled the Sunland Park Drive Project: Gateway
to the Entertainment Business District.
The plan involves expanding Sunland Park Drive, a
primary road connecting with neighboring El Paso, Texas, to Anapra Road near the
Mexican border. The idea is to move light industrial activity to an international
border zone, open a crossing with Mexico, expand parks, schools, recreation
trails, ensure wheel chair accessibility, and situate an envisioned
entertainment district at Racetrack Drive near the Sunland Park Racetrack and
Presented by Wilson and Company's Mario Infante,
the overview of a future Sunland Park drew questions from city councilors about
costs, time lines and amenities. If Sunland Park applies for and receives a
preliminary federal grant for 2017-2018, construction could be underway by
mid-2019, Infante projected. The total price tag? An estimated $11-14 million,
with 85 percent federal funding and 15 percent local matching, he said.
Sunland Park Community Development Director Hector
Rangel said the development goal is to create a community where people can walk
to services, dining and entertainment.
Part of the city council meeting was devoted to
viewing a video depicting how an
innovative road construction technique called "lithification" was
recently employed on Santa Teresita Road, transforming dirt into pavement,
cutting the work schedule down from five weeks to three and costing $600,000
instead of an original estimate of $1.7 million, according to both Mayor Perea
Prior to the recent paving, crews attempted to
repair the road for the past two years but it "kept falling apart,"
Rangel elaborated, blaming the setbacks on a difficult soil composition and a
high saline water table.
"Why aren't Santa Teresita residents
here?" questioned Councilor Renteria, saying she knew some residents who were
content with the road project’s outcome but still wished to hear their opinions
vented because of the previous bad road conditions they encountered.
In a meeting that lingered into the night (the
reporter had to leave while the session continued at 10 p.m. after more than
three hours), other items that were addressed included flood mitigation in the
low-lying Anapra neighborhood, recognition of the finance department for
winning a best practice award, and the approval of a $100,000 legal services
contract to Holt Mynatt Martinez P.C., a Las Cruces-based firm which currently
represents the city in litigation.
Road sign for Sunland Park
Councilor McBride asked why Holt and partners
were the solo applicants for the contract. Sunland Park Purchasing Agent Martin
Grajeda responded that others had indeed expressed preliminary interest but did
not follow up with bids. Grajeda promised he would send a complete list of the interested
but non-acting bidders to all the city council members.
The Battle of Valencia Hills
By far, the biggest display of political
fireworks erupted over a proposed ordinance rezoning the Valencia Hills area from
single-family residential to multi-family residential, a change that would allow
a new 200-unit apartment complex.
Consuming a good part of the meeting, the
proposal drew public comments from 16 speakers, with 14 of them adamantly
opposed to a zoning change.
The critics represented newer homeowners, many previously
from El Paso, who voiced deep concerns about possible crime and vandalism,
traffic troubles, lower property values, and dangers to their children. They
contended homeowners had not been properly notified of the proposed zoning ordinance
change. Decrying the “anxiety among us,”
one man slammed the city government for relying on Facebook to publicize
meetings and urged a better method of communications.
Valencia Hills residents asserted a big apartment
complex would disrupt an existing, close-knit community of family homeowners
and threaten their New Mexico Dream, as one speaker put it.
"We never received that (notification)
letter they sent out last time," said Janet Sanchez, who described herself
as a first time home owner. "We don't know who's going to live (in the
apartments). We don't know who's going to come in and out...everybody disagrees
with these rearrangements. I'm sure nobody would want apartments put in next to
Added Carmen Zamarron, "Our main concern is
our home value, our security. We bought our house to live comfortable, to have
good neighbors, which we do now."
Bemoaning the "insane" traffic of El
Paso, Lisa Adame painted a picture of her piece of paradise in New Mexico.
"It's a small community. We all say hi to everyone...We want to maintain
the beauty in that community."
Introducing himself as the president of the Villa
Valencia Homeowners Association, Raul Telles countered that Valencia Hills
critics exhibited nimbyism, and studies dispelled the strident criticisms flung
of apartment-driven lower property values. Tellez offered an intriguing
explanation for accounts of delinquent behavior in existing local apartment
"A lot of the crimes that have been
happening in Villa Valencia are, unfortunately, self-inflicted gunshot wounds,"
Addressing the city council for the second time
in the evening, Orlando Cervantes drew applause when he cautioned against
flippant rezoning and warned against government intervention in the real estate
market, arguing that it wasn't the function of government to increase or
depreciate land values. "That's for the market to dictate," he said.
Among the prominent southern New Mexico chile
pepper growers and processors who rode the crest during the great boom of the
1980s and 1990s, Cervantes is the father of state Senator Joseph Cervantes, who
is vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in next year's election.
Seated attentively, the developer of the
controversial, planned Valencia Hills apartment complex, Russell Hanson, answered
questions from city councilors. Geared exclusively for affluent residents, the
HUD loan guaranteed apartments would cost more than $20 million to build, the
El Paso-based developer estimated, and take into account traffic studies.
Suiting an upscale style, the complex will feature a fitness center and a swimming
pool, Hanson added.
"We believe there is a market need for this
project," he said. "We would not be spending $20-25 million if it wasn't
a go." Further, his company was invited to build at the location in
question by a Sunland Park city official, Hanson said, a remark which later
prompted a jab by Cervantes that such a project origin was improper “if not
Hanson contradicted a statement by Rangel that
the land at stake had been originally zoned for multi-family and then switched
to single residential by the same developer who is now favoring a reversion
back to multi-family.“I don’t recall
that taking place,” a visibly surprised Hanson replied.
Rangel quickly apologized, explaining that he had
“assumed” Hanson was the same owner during the first multi-family zoning
designation when in fact he wasn’t.
Rangel made additional comments that favored
Hanson's case. He said a real estate sign had been up for years at the site in
contention, and zeroed in on New Mexico state legal technicalities which the
city official insisted do not require
that all the people potentially impacted by a zoning change receive notification,
only those living within 100 feet of an affected area (excluding roadways) and
selected at random.
In compliance with the City of Sunland Park’s
legal duty, Rangel told councilors he had delivered them packets containing 35
certified letters sent to residents of the targeted zone.
of Holt, Mynatt Martinez then informed city councilors that they could vote yes
on rezoning, considering that it appeared all the legal notification requirements
were met. He cautioned that an
abstention could be counted as a "no" vote.
Councilor Nuñez asked Hanson what a negative vote
would signify for the apartment project.
"It would be dead," he intoned.
Tension rose in the council chambers as the discussion
tapered off and headed for a vote. Judging by the looks on city councilors'
faces, the decision facing them was a tough one. At the end of the roll call,
Councilors Giove, Nuñez and McBride voted in favor of the ordinance, Jayme
against it and Renteria abstained. With no majority of the six councilors, one
vote short due to Daniel De los Santos' absence, the proposed rezoning ordinance
failed. Looking disgusted, Hanson threw up his hands and stalked out of the
room. Critics breathed a sigh of relief.
But the Valencia Hills residents’ victory could
"(Rezoning) will come back," Councilor
Giove predicted later in the week. "I think the developer did the right
things," Giove said. "It was the second or third meeting on this. He
stated that he would put in high-end apartments… and I'm good with that."
For his part, Hanson was subsequently unavailable
for comment. Looking back at the city council session which he said didn’t
finish until 11:30 pm, Giove voiced frustration at the meeting process, the
pace of progress in reforming city government and problems in overhauling aging
“We have too much on our plate. We’re trying to
recover from 15 years of neglect,” Giove said.
The first term councilman, who is still
considering whether to run for reelection in the 2018 city election, contended
that numerous deficiencies, obstacles and challenges confront the municipal
administration, including the desirability of renegotiating garbage disposal
and utility contracts; new management
changes in the long-running campaign to secure a local border crossing with
Mexico; lack of professional expertise
in some key positions; insufficient
state government financial assistance; competition over the tight municipal
budget; and a need for independent
On the other hand, Giove had positive words for
regular educational workshops attended by city council members on planning, zoning
and other issues. “We should be having a hell of lot more if we’re going to get
these things..,” he said. “That requires organization and staff that are
hero is recognized
The November 7 meeting also spent considerable
time discussing animal control in Sunland Park and the city’s inadequate
facility to house captured creatures.
Councilors approved a $30,000 allocation to improve the animal control
program, after hearing about the expense in time and money driving animals to
the bigger Dona Ana County facility.
The proposed budget item sparked a larger
conversation. Though in support of the requested funding, Rangel warned
councilors “this is a band aid solution” demanding a long-term cure like an
ordinance mandating dog licensing, microchips and vaccinations. In response to
a question from Councilor Jayme, Rangel said it would take about six months to
have such an ordinance before city councilors.
Councilor Nuñez steered the conversation to the
working conditions of the city’s dog-catcher, Mr. Chaparro. “I commend him,”
she declared, adding she was worried about his health and safety. “Does he have
a shower?” Nuñez asked. Provoking chuckles, Rangel agreed that Mr. Chaparro
needs shower access, recalling a time when the animal control officer was
sprayed by a skunk and physically exuded evidence of the encounter for three
Dressed in work garb, Mr. Chaparro graciously
accepted the compliments, but stressing he could not do his job completely
alone thanked the Fire Department and other city
staff for pitching in. “We’re a team,” he said.
Ironically, after the reporter left the meeting
and was driving outside the racetrack and casino a naughty little Chihuahua was
running loose along the road, perhaps taking advantage of the absence of city
officials still immersed in their long meeting to make mischief.